The issue: Underperforming teachers

1st July 2011 at 01:00
DfE proposals aim to simplify the dismissal process for failing teachers. But they must remain fair to both sides

Heads have long maintained that the procedure for removing failing teachers is too drawn out. "When a teacher isn't up to scratch, it's the children who suffer," says Ian Bruce, head at Rosemellin Community Primary in Cornwall. "Currently, it can take up to two years to dismiss an underperformer, and that's a very significant time span in terms of a child's education."

Government proposals aim to speed up this process by making capability procedures (where a school takes a formal approach to performance management) swifter and more simple. But the changes are hardly sweeping. Only the "informal warning" stage of proceedings will be ditched, a move that is likely to shorten the process by no more than a few weeks. And, between a final warning and dismissal, teachers must still be given "reasonable" time to show improvement - with a suggested minimum of a month.

More controversially, the guidelines look to tackle the issue of teachers who are placed on capability procedure and then go off sick - stating that this "should not automatically mean that action to address poor performance is suspended." As things stand, it's rare for proceedings to continue against an absent member of staff, which is one reason why cases can last years, rather than months.

"Governing bodies worry about potential law suits," says Kevin Harcombe, head of Redlands primary in Hampshire. "It's a very delicate area. Teachers placed on capability often go off sick soon afterwards. It might be a deliberate attempt to stall proceedings, but it could also be genuine stress, or an unrelated illness. You have to treat each case on its merits."

Mr Harcombe worries that "rogue headteachers" could use the new rules as a way of forcing out staff - a concern shared by Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University. "You can speed up the dismissal process, but it still has to be fair," says Professor Cooper. "There will be a few teachers genuinely not up to the job, but there will be others who are simply stressed or burnt out, and who, with rest and support, could come back and make a valuable contribution. Heads need to make that distinction."

Another key issue surrounding capability is regional variation. Of the 3,600 competency proceedings that took place between 2005 and 2010, more than 400 were in one authority - West Sussex - while other authorities had just a single case. There are also wide variations in appeal processes and in the amount of time teachers are given to improve before dismissal. But the new guidelines and model policy are non-statutory - so teachers in different schools will still be treated differently.

Not that this flexibility is necessarily a bad thing, suggests Ian Bruce. "It's right that heads have some freedom," he says. "Every teacher is different. Some will improve quickly when first placed on capability procedure, then tail off, while others will make slow but steady progress. Teachers have to be given reasonable time. On the other hand, things can't be allowed to drag on indefinitely or pupils will suffer. It's about finding the right balance."

New guidelines

If a teacher's appraisal reveals problems, they should be set targets and an "appropriate monitoring period" agreed.

If the teacher fails to meet their targets, a disciplinary meeting may be called.

Currently, heads must issue an informal warning. Under new proposals, they are able to issue a formal or final warning at this point.

Except in the most serious cases, a further timeframe must be agreed for improvement, with a suggested minimum of one month.

Source: Proposed model policy, Department for Education.

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